Bush welcomes Pope to 'nation of prayer'

Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 81st birthday in a lavish ceremony at the White House. The pope is expected to discuss the Iraq war in talks with President George W. Bush later on Wednesday. (Watch France 24's special report)


Click here to watch our edition of Top Story in which we discuss the Pope's visit to the US


Pope Benedict XVI looked visibly moved as he celebrated his 81st birthday on the South Lawn of the White House before a crowd of 9,000 guests Wednesday. The head of the Roman Catholic Church was greeted by a 21-gun salute, followed by the singing of "The Lord's Prayer" by US soprano Kathleen Battle.

“In America you will find a nation of prayer, of compassion, of religious freedom, that welcomes the role of faith in public life,” said President George W. Bush, in a speech likely to strike a chord with a Catholic Church alarmed by the rise of secularism in Europe.

“I come as a friend, a preacher of the gospel,” replied the pope. While speaking to all Americans, the pope praised “Catholic citizens’ contribution to the life of the American nation”. He did not, as yet, touch on the controversial issue of immigration.

The lavishness of the occasion stresses the importance of  Benedict’s first visit to a country where faith remains very much alive. For the Vatican, the trip is also an exercise in public relations, designed to boost the image of the US Catholic Church in the wake of the child abuse scandal, which has plagued the church since 2002.

 “On the one hand, it’s a birthday party,” Jean-Pierre Denis, managing editor of French catholic weekly La Vie, told France 24. “But on the other hand, it’s one of the most difficult trips a pope could make to the US.”


The US, a “model society” for the Vatican?

The 6-day papal visit includes an address to the United Nations Assembly on Friday, meetings with leaders of other churches and a mass celebration in a New York stadium.

23.9% of the US population is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on religion and public life.

In a survey released Sunday by the nations’ bishops, eight in 10 Catholics said they were somewhat or very satisfied with his leadership. Nearly half a million people sought tickets to his public events in Washington DC and New York City.

Benedict rates as favorably with US Catholics as did Pope John Paul II on the eve of his second major visit to the United States, in 1987.

“The US is a model of a society that’s very modern and very religious. It’s also a wealthy society, which is important because it is financially self-sufficient,” says Jean-Marie Guénois, editor-in-chief of French catholic daily La Croix. “This church helps fund other Catholic churches in South America, Asia and Africa.”

On Tuesday, Bush, a protestant, went out of his way to welcome the Pope, greeting him in person at the airport, something he rarely does.

“The fact is that if you’re a conservative, you can find common ground with Pope Benedict on American cultural battles, such as abortion, the importance of the family, freedom of worship,” says Armen Georgian, France 24 international news editor.

Defusing the Church’s pedophilia scandal

In an attempt to prevent the Church’s pedophilia scandal from overshadowing his visit, Benedict took advantage of the media presence on the flight from Rome to Washington to say he felt “deeply ashamed” about it. He added that he would try to “heal the wounds caused by the pedophile priests.”

But he has so far refused to meet victims’ associations.

The child abuse scandal has taken a heavy toll on the Catholic Church, forcing it to pay an estimated $2 billion in legal fees and settlements. It is estimated that out of 42,000 American priests, two to six thousand individuals have been involved in sex abuse cases.

A Washington Post-ABC news poll published on Tuesday showed about three-quarters of Catholics and non-Catholics disapproved of how the Church dealt with this issue. A growing 62% of Catholics said the Church was not reflective of their views.

“One of the Pope’s challenges is to clean the image of the church and to do it without triumphalism,” says Jean-Marie Guénois, the editor-in-chief of the French catholic daily La Croix. “His tone on the plane indicates that he is intent on keeping a low profile and that now is a time for explanation.”

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